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A startling 70% of voters believe our democracy is “in danger” in this election, one October poll found. In another survey, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults say the 2020 election has become a significant source of stress in their lives. And perhaps predictably in this era of stark polarization and perception gaps, Democrats and Republicans frame their anxieties in nearly inverse ways.
Americans are thinking not only about the pivotal choice that will determine the direction of the country, but also about the very fabric of its political traditions, including its decentralized and state-varying ballot boxes.
“I have never, not for a fraction of a second in my entire life, worried about the security and validity of an election until now,” says Michelle Deininger, who has voted regularly since she was 18. “And that’s just such a foreign, eerie, un-American feeling.”
“For better or worse, there is a lot of onus on voters this election cycle to be their own greatest advocates,” says government professor Mara Suttmann-Lea, “to know their rights, to know what the follow-up process is for casting mail ballots.”
Like millions of other Americans, Michelle Deininger has found herself deeply frazzled about the presidential election this November.
A stay-at-home mother and self-described RINO, or “Republican in name only” living in Park City, Utah, she notes how the global pandemic, reeling economy, and ongoing eruption of civic unrest following the killings of George Floyd and others have now also become the nerve-wracking backdrop to one of the most momentous elections in her lifetime.
“I’m 52 and I’ve been voting since I turned 18, and I have never, not for a fraction of a second in my entire life, worried about the security and validity of an election until now,” says Ms. Deininger, a lifelong Democrat from Boston who switched parties two years ago to have a voice in her new Republican-dominated state. “And that’s just such a foreign, eerie, un-American feeling.”
Across the political spectrum, a host of Americans have been expressing similar anxieties, not only about the pivotal choice next month that will determine the direction of the country, but also about the very fabric of America’s political traditions, including its decentralized and state-varying ballot boxes.
A startling 70% of voters believe our democracy is “in danger” in this election, an early-October Fox News poll found, including about 8 in 10 supporters of the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, and 6 in 10 supporters of President Donald Trump. Over two-thirds of U.S. adults, too, say the 2020 election has become a significant source of stress in their lives, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association in early October.
Utah, like many states out West, has long had a robust tradition of mail-in voting. Each election it sends all active registered voters a ballot that can either be mailed or dropped off early at a designated location – like the grocery store where Ms. Deininger cast her ballots in 2018 and this year’s primary.
She didn’t give the system a thought in those elections, she says. But with President Trump undermining confidence in the processing of an expected record number of mail-in ballots across the country, for the first time she double-checked her voter registration, and for the first time she’s considering volunteering to be a poll worker.
“I was horrified and alarmed during the presidential debate when the president urged his supporters to go to polling places and watch closely,” she says. “And I was even more horrified and disturbed at the admonition, exhortation, for the Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by.’ This is a very red state, and I just don’t even know, will there be armed supporters, threatening, trying to intimidate?”
Just as she’s speaking, she notices breaking news that the FBI had arrested 13 men involved in an anti-government militia that was plotting, officials say, to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, take her to a “secure location,” put her “on trial” for violating the U.S. Constitution, and foment “a civil war leading to societal collapse.”
“It’s just like we’ve turned into another country,” Ms. Deininger says.
How the economy looks to you
Perhaps predictably in this era of stark polarization and perception gaps, Democrats and Republicans frame their anxieties in nearly inverse ways.
“I’ve been really concerned that there will be irreparable harm to the American economy if it continues to stay shut down any longer,” says James Linzey, chief editor of the Modern English Version of the Bible and a former military chaplain living in Escondido, California. “It’s going to be a fight, but if Joseph Biden is elected, I just fear the worst – and I will consider selling my house and getting out of California,” as other Republicans have already said this year.
He’s been both a supporter and admirer of President Trump from the start, and his enthusiasm for the president has hardly waned. “Fortunately, President Trump has had the wherewithal to try to reopen the economy or encourage the economy to open back up in the states.”
But Mr. Linzey has lost faith in most of the country’s news media and scientific institutions, which he sees as havens for liberal thought and deliberate deception. “I am not concerned about Donald Trump losing the election. The polls were wrong in 2016, and I think the polls are wrong again, too,” he says.
How the pandemic has been managed
Eric Mingott, a financial adviser from Queens who used to be active in the borough’s Republican circles, changed his registration to become an unaffiliated independent earlier this year. His primary concern has been the president’s handling of the pandemic. His preexisting medical conditions, he says, make him especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“Beforehand it was the economy, or the principles of foreign policy,” says Mr. Mingott, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Peru. “Now it’s all about whether or not COVID can end, or how we can control it.”
Born and raised in East Elmhurst, Queens, he, like thousands of New Yorkers, moved to a suburb in Long Island earlier this year, frustrated with the onerous municipal burdens of living in a Democratic-run city and a neighborhood that was a COVID-19 hot spot last March.
“So now, how do we provide for the safety and quality of this election?” Mr. Mingott says. If mail-in ballots are part of the solution, “even though states have been doing it for a long time, the question is, are we capable of doing this with millions of ballots? Will every vote be counted? Will there be a lot of fraud?”
Having a voting plan
Mara Suttmann-Lea, professor of government at Connecticut College in New London, has been planning a community talk titled “What to expect when you’re expecting an election meltdown” – though she says, for the record, she’s certainly not saying 100% there will be such a meltdown.
“Just observing some of the messaging coming out of the Biden campaign and coming out of the [Democratic National Committee], there has been a shift away from the voting-by-mail piece and toward, have a plan, vote early if you can, and really, you know, encouraging voters to do what they can to limit the stress on the system on Election Day.”
That is the plan for Lori Morton, lead coordinator for career services at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She’s a registered Democrat and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the same network of Black women to which vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris belongs.
“I’ve been worried about the mail-in voting probably more than anything else,” Ms. Morton says, noting that the current postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, has personally contributed millions to President Trump and the Republican Party. This year, he has directed the removal of more than 700 sorting machines across the country, nearly twice the average number removed each year from 2015 to 2019.
“But my circle – and I have a large circle, have several circles – we are not mailing anything in,” says Ms. Morton, who also has a private practice as a therapist and counselor. “We’re bypassing the post office. Folks are planning to take their ballots to a supervisor of elections office or taking it directly to a polling place.”
In her practice, she says, she is finding that her clients have been expressing more feelings of anxiety than in past years, and she has been treating a much higher number of people experiencing panic attacks.
“I think that people are just so polarized and just so angry for a variety of reasons, whether they’re founded or unfounded,” she says. “If the Republican Party wins, there’s going to be folks in the street. If the Democratic Party wins, there’s going to be folks on the street. I don’t see any way around that.”
President Trump, too, has declined to say he would accept the election results given what he sees as the many risks of mail-in ballots.
Bipartisan fraud, if any at all
Mail-in ballots do have certain built-in vulnerabilities, say experts including Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
They are the only kind of ballots that are cast outside the supervision of election officials, he says, which makes them vulnerable to everything from being stolen out of people’s mailboxes to voters in their homes being vulnerable to coercion and intimidation by others.
“But even apart from that … the rejection rate for absentee ballots again is much higher than for ballots cast in person,” Mr. von Spakovsky says. “People forget to sign the ballot; they don’t provide all the information you’re supposed to provide. Sometimes the Postal Service, in addition to potentially not delivering it on time, forgets to postmark the envelope.”
And while the impact of fraud may be negligible in presidential elections, and though wide-scale voter fraud is extremely rare, most experts say, in the hosts of down-ballot races, winners are often determined by a small number of votes.
“The one thing I can tell you is that election fraud, when it occurs, is bipartisan,” he says. “It’s committed by people of both political parties, and it’s not always one party stealing from another. Sometimes it’s people in the same political party stealing from each other.”
But both he and others say that in this election, it’s critical that voters casting mail-in ballots have a laserlike focus on the details.
“I think the other thing that really flummoxes folks is the amount of variation there is in election procedures,” says Professor Suttmann-Lea. “For better or worse, there is a lot of onus on voters this election cycle to be their own greatest advocates, to know their rights, to know what the follow-up process is for casting mail ballots.”